Malcolm X | Critical Review by John Henrik Clarke

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Malcolm X.
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Critical Review by John Henrik Clarke

SOURCE: "The Man and His Mission," in Freedomways, Winter, 1966, pp. 48-52.

In the following review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Clarke indicates a high regard for Malcolm X's personal accomplishments and notes while the autobiography would have benefitted from "editing and pruning," it is effective in imparting the nature of Malcolm X and his achievements.

The man best known as Malcolm X lived three distinct and interrelated lives under the respective names, Malcolm Little, Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Any honest attempt to understand the total man must begin with some understanding of the significant components that went into his making. The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this country. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a King—and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one.

In the introduction to this autobiography, M. S. Handler has said: "No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price—a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society." Malcolm X put American society on the defensive by questioning its intentions toward his people and by proving those intentions to be false. This is an act of manhood, and it is the basis for most of the trouble that Malcolm had in this country in his lifetime.

It has been said, correctly, that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book about the nature of religious conversion. The book is more precisely about a man in search of a definition of himself and his relationships to his people, his country and the world. Malcolm X knew, before he could explain it to himself and others, that he was living in a society that was engaged in the systematized destruction of his people's self-respect. His first memories are about his father and his attempts to maintain himself and his family while bigoted white policemen, Ku Klux Klansmen and Black Legionnaires were determined to teach him to stay in "his place." The father of Malcolm X was killed while fighting against the restricted place that has been assigned to his people in this country. Malcolm X continued the same fight and was killed for the same reason.

His mother was born as a result of her mother being raped by a white man in the West Indies. When he was four, the house where he and his family lived was burned down by members of the Ku Klux Klan. When he was six his father met a violent death that his family always believed was a lynching.

After the death of his father, who was a follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, his family was broken up and for a number of years he lived in state institutions and boarding houses. When he finally went to school he made good marks, but lost interest and was a dropout at the age of fifteen. He went to live with his sister in Boston, and worked at the kinds of jobs available to Negro youth—mainly the jobs not wanted by white people, like: shoe-shine boy, soda jerk, hotel bus boy, member of a dining-car crew on trains traveling to New York, and waiter in a Harlem night club. From these jobs he found his way into the underworld and thought, at the time, that his position in life was advancing. In the jungle of the underworld, where the fiercest survive by fleecing the weak and the defenseless, he became a master manipulator, skilled in gambling, the selling of drugs, burglary and hustling. A friend who had helped him get his first job gave him the rationale for his actions. "The main thing you have to remember," he was told, "is that everything in the world is a hustle."

Malcolm returned to Boston, where he was later arrested for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison. The year was 1946 and he was not quite 21 years old. Prison was another school for Malcolm. He now had time to think and plan. Out of this thinking he underwent a conversion that literally transformed his whole life. By letters and visits from his family he was introduced to the Black Muslim Movement (which calls itself officially The Lost-Found Nation of Islam).

He tested himself in the discipline of his newly chosen religion by refusing to eat pork. The event startled his fellow inmates, who had nicknamed him Satan. He describes the occasion in this manner:

It was the funniest thing—the reaction, and the way that it spread. In prison, where so little breaks the monotonous routine, the smallest thing causes a commotion of talk. It was being mentioned all over the cell block by night that Satan didn't eat pork.

Later I would learn, when I had read and studied Islam a good deal, that, unconsciously, my first pre-Islamic submission had been manifested. I had experienced, for the first time, the Muslim teaching, "If you take one step toward Allah—Allah will take two steps toward you."… My brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago had all become converted to what they were being taught was the "natural religion for the black man."

His description of his process of self-education in prison is an indictment of the American educational system and a tribute to his perseverance in obtaining an education after being poorly prepared in the public schools.

While in prison he devised his own method of self-education and learned how to speak and debate effectively so that he could participate in and defend the movement after his release from prison. He started by copying words from the dictionary that might be helpful to him, beginning with "A." He went through to "Z," and then he writes, "for the first time, I could pick up a book and actually understand what the book was saying."

This aspect of his story calls attention to the tremendous reservoirs of talent, and even genius, locked up in the black ghettos among the masses. It also indicates what can be accomplished when the talent of this oppressed group is respected and given hope and a purpose.

Within a few years he was to become a debater with a national reputation. He took on politicians, college professors, journalists, and anyone black or white who had the nerve to meet him. He was respected by some and feared by others.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, when he was twenty-seven years old. For a few weeks he took a job with his oldest brother, Wilfred, as a furniture salesman in Detroit. He went to Chicago before the end of that year to hear and meet the leader of the Nation of Islam—Elijah Muhammad. He was accepted into the movement and given the name of Malcolm X. He went back to Detroit and was made assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque. From this point on his rise in the movement and in the eyes of the public was rapid.

At the end of 1953 he went to Chicago to live with the leader of the Nation of Islam and be trained by him personally. After organizing a mosque in Philadelphia, he was sent to head the movement in Harlem in 1954 before he was thirty years old. In a few years he was able to transform the Black Muslim Movement into a national organization and himself into one of the country's best known personalities. As the public spokesman and defender of the movement, he literally put it on the map. This was the beginning of his trouble with his leader, Elijah Muhammad. When the public thought of the Black Muslim Movement they thought first of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X had appeal far beyond the movement. He was one of the most frequent speakers on the nation's campuses and the object of admiration by thousands of militant youth.

In his pamphlet, "Malcolm X—The Man and His Ideas," George Breitman gives the following description of Malcolm's appeal as a speaker:

His speaking style was unique—plain, direct like an arrow, devoid of flowery trimming. He used metaphors and figures of speech that were lean and simple, rooted in the ordinary, daily experience of his audiences…. Despite an extraordinary ability to move and arouse his listeners, his main appeal was to reason, not emotion…. I want only to convey the idea that rarely has there been a man in America better able to communicate ideas to the most oppressed people; and that was not just a matter of technique, which can be learned and applied in any situation by almost anybody, but that it was a rare case of a man in closest communion with the oppressed, able to speak to them, because he identified himself with them.

At the Grass Roots Conference in Detroit in November 1963 Malcolm X made his last important speech as a Muslim. In this speech he took a revolutionary position in the civil rights struggle—speaking mainly for himself and not for the leader he always referred to as The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. This speech showed clearly that Malcolm X had outgrown the narrow stage of the Black Muslim Movement.

He devotes a chapter in his book to the growth of his disenchantment and his eventual suspension from the Black Muslim Movement. He says: "I had helped Mr. Muhammad and his ministers to revolutionize the American black man's thinking, opening his eyes until he would never again look in the same fearful way at the white man…. If I harbored any personal disappointment whatsoever, it was that privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man's overall struggle—if we engaged in more action. By that mean I thought privately that we should have amended, or relaxed, our general non-engagement policy. I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and the Birminghams and other places, militantly disciplined Muslims should also be there—for all the world to see, and respect and discuss."

The split with Elijah Muhammad finally came, as it was expected, and over a matter that seemed rather trivial. The occasion for the split was a remark by Malcolm after the death of President Kennedy in November 1963.

During the last phase of his life Malcolm X established Muslim Mosque, Inc., and a non-religious organization—The Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity. He attempted to internationalize the civil rights fight by taking it to the United Nations. In several trips to Africa and one to Mecca, he sought the counsel and support of African and Asian heads of state.

In the Epilogue to this book Alex Haley has written a concise account of the last days of Malcolm X. The book, revealing as it is, reads like the first draft of what could have been the most exciting autobiography of our time. It is unfortunate that Malcolm X did not live long enough to do the necessary editing and pruning that this book needed. We have no way of knowing what liberties Alex Haley took, if any, while editing the manuscript after the assassination of Malcolm X on Sunday, February 21, 1965.

That a man who had inhabited the "lower depth" of life could rise in triumph as a reproach to its ills, and become an uncompromising champion of his people, is in itself a remarkable feat. Malcolm X went beyond this feat. Though he came from the American ghetto and directed his message to the people in the American ghetto first of all, he also became, in his brief lifetime, a figure of world importance. He died on the threshold of his potential. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written hurriedly near the end of his life, is a clear indication of what this potential could have been.

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This section contains 2,021 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Henrik Clarke
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